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An ancient and highly-sacred Scottish tree, The Fortingall Yew, located on the Glenlyon Estate in Perthshire, is thought to be between 3,000 – 5,000 years old and possibly the oldest tree in Europe . Now, scientists claim it might be ‘dead’ in less that 50 years because tourists are tearing off its branches for souvenirs (Facepalms).
Environmental campaigners say the yew tree, which is the oldest in the UK and maybe in Europe, even though being caged inside the Fortingall Churchyard in Perthshire, has been left “in increasingly bad health because of tourists.” A Scotsman article said tourists are “chopping the branches off to keep for themselves” and Catherine Lloyd, coordinator of the Tayside Biodiversity Community Partnership, said: “They are attacking this poor tree” and “it’s stressed.”
The Fortingall Yew sits in the corner of the churchyard and is surrounded by a wall and railings, which are there to protect it. (Maigheach-gheal / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Neil Hooper, the tree warden for Fortingall, said that a metal Tree Council plaque had been “forced down and twisted flat face down, which must have taken considerable force, by someone climbing into the enclosure.” He said visitors climb into the enclosure over a “listed wall”, so that they can tie beads and ribbons to the tree’s branches . For some, the temptation proves too great and “needles, twigs, even bits of branches have been ‘torn’ off”.
The Sacred Heritage of The UK’s Oldest Tree
For almost two centuries the tree has been a focus of Christian pilgrims who hold the tree as a landmark of early Christianity; the tree that provided shade at the birth of Pontius Pilate who is said to have been born in this village during the Roman occupation and played beneath the Yew as a boy, before he grew up and ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Skeptics, however, claim this entire story was a hoax created by Sir Donald Currie, a shipping magnate who bought the Glenlyon Estate in 1885, that rubbed shoulders with literary fantasists such as Rudyard Kipling Lord Tennyson. However, let us not be too quick to dismiss the actual magic of this tree along with the cultural myths, for in the real world, this particular tree is a scientific marvel, a genetic rarity.
Four years ago, scientists in Scotland announced that the sacred tree was “undergoing a sex change.” They knew that the Fortingall Yew had “always” been recorded as being “a male tree”, but in 2015 it started sprouting berries – something only female yew trees do!
The Fortingall Yew spouted berries in 2015. (grassrootsgroundswell / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Experts at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, skeptically, ventured to Fortingall and indeed spotted three berries high up on the tree. Dr. Max Coleman, of the Royal Botanic Garden , told reporters at The Guardian “Yew trees have been known to change sex before but… The sex change isn’t the amazing bit in this case, it’s the fact it’s this particular tree.” Coleman thought “occasional switches of sex can maximize the reproduction potential, still, the sudden appearance of ‘female parts’ on a tree thousands of years old is a mystery.
Saving the Sacred Fortingall Yew
Alarmingly, due to its current state of poor health, Catherine Lloyd said “one day the ancient yew will keel over, and it could happen in 50 or 300 years”. In response, The Church Yew Tree project, is a 10-year program working in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh that will plant seedlings from the Fortingall Yew at various kirkyards in Perthshire and Angus, and also at the Royal Botanic Garden. By 2020 they hope to have successfully identified around 20 churchyards which will accept new saplings.
A cutting of the Fortingall Yew at Kindrogan Field Studies Centre. (Rosser1954 / Public Domain )
Eco-congregation Scotland and the Tayside Biodiversity Community Partnership planted the first tree at Megginch Castle, near Errol, this month but Loyd told reporters that the sapling “Might not be from the Fortingall Yew” and she added “the true origin of this tree cannot be determined without a DNA test” and that is important because the scientists only want to work with saplings from the original Fortingall tree.”
A Message To The Historic Souvenir Collector
While writing this article a haunting thought came over me; because of the nature of the Ancient Origins platform, the probability must be quite high that at least one of the readers will have a branch, needle or piece of bark from the sacred tree sitting gathering dust on their mantel piece. Just in case, I must take this concluding paragraph to speak openly with you, the way your mothers obviously failed to do.
Although you think possessing a piece of old tree enhances your spirituality, connection to nature or overall individuality, in cold reality you are a confused lowly materialist. Leave things as you find them!
The Fortingall Yew in June 2011, comparing you can clearly see its downfall. (Paul Hermans / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Top image: The Fortingall Yew is the oldest living thing in Europe. The original size of the trunk is marked by the wooden poles. Source: Moeng / CC BY-SA 3.0